Now, list of Austrian silversmith names in hand — or in PDF, actually — I set out to find my tray's silversmith. I began Googling like a madman. I systematically checked every single possible match on the list first with just their names, then using every combination of keywords I could think of to try and find any pieces similar to mine. As you can probably imagine, this took a long time. As in many, many, many hours over many days.
Not one single piece of silver that matched mine in tone or style did I find. In fact there were very few pieces that appeared to be attributed to any of the silversmiths. Now I happen to know a little German as well, so I was also trying search terms like silber, silberschmied (silver & silversmith), Wien (Vienna) and about a dozen others that might also apply (jugendstil, platte). While they were a tiny bit more helpful in enticing a few pieces of errant silver to reveal themselves from the far reaches of the internet, the haul was so paltry that it was dispiriting in the extreme. Essentially, the web-based method was a no-go. I had not identified the maker, or even seen one maker's mark real or illustrated that I could compare to.
This left me with no choice but to conduct traditional, get-off-your-butt and go-actually-do-something research. In the real world. With books. My first try was the LA Public Library. Almost every book on decorative arts and collecting is a "reference" book in most libraries — LA's being no exception — and hence cannot be checked out, only perused in person. This required a visit to the main branch in downtown. I spent half a day looking through every silver related book and catalog I could find cover to cover, with no luck at all. The principle problem being that nearly every book on silver and silver collecting is about English and American silver. They rarely include information about other silver traditions, and if they do, it's more of an afterthought.
Striking out downtown, I next tried two smaller but well-heeled libraries closer to home: West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. West Hollywood is a stunning building, but they had few books of interest to my search. Beverly Hills' collection was more extensive and they have a really top-notch staff armed with iPads and sharp minds to guide you. After a librarian consultation I settled down with a pretty large stack of silver tomes. As before, nearly all the books dealt mostly with Anglo-American silver, and about two hours into looking I was tired.
I had three books in the stack left to go through. Book one, nothing. Book two was the biggest of the three, and I put it aside. Book three yielded, again, not one lead. So I picked up book two, a glossy hardcover collection of Christie's auction results from the seventies through the nineties featuring sterling. There was an actual section of Austro-Hungarian silver! Oh so carefully I perused each page, looking for any initials, marks, names, or styles that might match my mysterious tray. It was a surprisingly long chapter with perhaps hundreds of items, and I lingered over each. When I neared reaching the last page of the chapter I was actually starting to get nervous and sweat a little with the anticipation. And I turned the very last page of chapter 7 and found that I had just discovered…
No concrete information: as in no items that looked similar, and no names to match my initials. I turned to the back of the book to see if there might be some marks reference or guide; unfortunately, there was none. But there was a bibliography, with one single listing that looked pertinent:
Waltraud, Neuwirth: Wiener Gold und Silberschmiede und ihre Punzen 1867-1922, 2 Vols, Vienna, 1976.
Translated it reads "Vienna Gold and Silversmiths and their Marks 1867-1922." Aha! Finally! Naturally I immediately checked the collection at the Beverly Hills library: no such book. I had spent the entire day searching so I decided to pack up and head home.
At home that night I tried to find the book online: to begin with, no local library had it. Amazon had two used copies. For $536 and up. No other bookseller had one for less (I found another for $1200). Obviously a rare book. Somehow I managed to stumble upon this lovely researching gem: the WorldCat online, with a listing for the exact book. Miraculously, the Getty Research Institute, mere miles from my home, had a copy in their collection.
I searched the Getty's online catalog, and it emerged that there is a complicated system of book storage location and access privilege levels, and the book appeared to be somewhere an hour away and I wasn't sure if I was allowed to even use the library. When I hit this roadblock I stopped for the night, and called them the next day when I could speak to someone directly. No answer, so I left a message and was rewarded with a call from a very helpful librarian not that much later, who explained the system. Yes, they had the book, yes, I was allowed to use the library (she gave me an account), and I was allowed to look at this particular book, but not remove it, and, yes, it was all free. Except for the fact that I had to place a special order for the book to have it delivered from their offsite storage and wait for it to arrive it was all fantastic news. I used my fabulous new Getty Research Institute (GRI) Plaza Reader account and logged in to the system and ordered the book!
The next Monday, both iPad and paper pad in hand, I set off for what I assumed would be the make or break final adventure of the saga. When I arrived I had to go through several rounds of discussions and telephone calls with the security gate. You see, the Getty itself is closed on Mondays, but the Research Institute is open. Lacking a scholar's ID they were hesitant to allow me to enter, but, eventually it all got smoothed out (I had been forewarned it might happen as non-credentialed library patrons are rare). I parked in the nearly empty garage and waited for the staff van that took me to the top of the hill (no monorail when the museum is closed). On any given day the Getty and its gardens are beautiful. Deserted of people, whisper quiet, with golden sunshine warming the expanses of marble, it's glorious. I was thrilled just to have the experience of seeing the grounds in solitude — accompanied only by a chaparral scented breeze.
The research library itself is set slightly apart from the museum to its west. I entered and checked in, then walked down into the library. It harbors commanding views of the ocean, the Santa Monica mountains, the gardens, and the entire city of LA laid out below via floor to ceiling windows throughout. In a word, it's an amazing place to visit. There were maybe a half dozen other readers scattered about the fairly luxe "public" section. At the circulation desk I was greeted by yet another friendly librarian, who seemed lightly curious as to why I needed such an uncommon book. I explained the story to her as I filled out my paperwork; within minutes she wished me good luck as she handed me a copy of the (quite possibly) unique reference that could answer the questions surrounding my tray's maker.
I took the small (but dense) book to one of the many open carrels and sat down with it. I gave myself a moment to absorb the experience, then opened it. It only took me about a minute to find the page I was seeking. Unsurprisingly, the Austrians had a very simple, concrete method for ascribing marks to metalsmiths, and once I saw how the system was arranged and designated I knew I was going to be pleased. There, among all the other varieties of JLs — plain, in both serif and sans serif type, with an array of designs and lozenges and extra marks — was my J•L, just as it appears on my tray, standing for:
LOCHNER, JOSEF • Silversmith… 1895 to 1923… Accessories, Candelabras, Tea and Coffee Services…
After so much work and effort it was an exceptional reward. I kept staring at the page, afraid that I might have read it wrong or even just imagined it, but it remained real.
Sometimes the final outcome of an ardent quest can end up feeling a bit underwhelming, but not in this case. It felt utterly earned and even a tiny bit magical. My dusty thrift store tray was made generations ago and half a world away, by hand, by a master silversmith in Fin de siècle Vienna — one of the great design centers of the world at the time, home of the Secessionists. Once I saw it in black and white I knew that the tiny voice at the back of mind so long before had been right.
I snapped digital shots of everything I thought relevant, and I also hand wrote the details as well just to be safe. Later on at home I scoured the Internet for anything else I could find by Josef Lochner, and I managed to locate a number of other pieces by him sold at auctions (the Hungarian word for silver, if you're wondering, is "ezüst"). Most featured natural motifs interwoven with piercings, in what I realized must have been his signature style. A few were more traditional and Baroque in their styling, which are likely earlier works.
Finally, my long-sought artist had become real, and I now I could honestly say that I've found a true treasure, one of the great finds of a life spent looking for hidden gems in unlikely places.